Three Bruins — former UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, historian Damion Thomas, and athlete and activist Kaiya McCullough — came together recently for an inspirational and heartfelt virtual conversation about the life and legacy of the late Rafer Johnson.
During this UCLA Connections event titled “Greater than Gold: The Life and Legacy of Rafer Johnson,” they delved into the historical context of Johnson’s life and accomplishments, his role in the struggle for racial equality and his dedication to the Special Olympics and helping others.
Thomas, who received three degrees from UCLA and is now the sports curator at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture, pointed out that even while Johnson was setting world records in track and field, he was a scholar athlete at UCLA and served as student body president.
After Carl Lewis donated his Olympic medals to the museum, Thomas had a vision to place the torch Johnson used to light the Olympic flame opposite the medals. He was able to meet with Johnson to tell him why he wanted the museum to share his legacy with the world.
“He helped define the potential of African Americans for a generation,” Thomas said. “He was an African American that both African Americans and whites looked at as a symbol of what African Americans could accomplish if they were given a fair chance to compete on terms of equality, because that’s what sports were for African Americans, a metaphor for equality. And African Americans use sports success and athletes like Rafer Johnson to say that if you open up the doors to law, if you open up the doors to medicine, to politics, we can do the same kind of things. And so he’s a symbol of progress.”
McCullough, who played on the 2017 UCLA women’s soccer team and kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, reflected on Johnson’s legacy and how it informs her own activism. She emphasized how Johnson used his power as arguably the greatest male athlete of his time to help and love others, dedicating his time to humanitarian causes as well as by being a bridge builder.
“He could have done anything, but he used his gifts to help others,” McCullough said. “That’s what I value and am trying to implement in my own activism in the 21st century.”
Kondos Field, who was a personal friend of Johnson’s, teaches his legacy to young student athletes across the country and refers to him as a super hero.
“A great athlete works hard, doesn’t skimp on conditioning, eats wells, rests well,” she said. “A champion does all those things but includes those around him or her, including teammates to make them as good as they are. But there are a few who take it to whole other level. Superheroes lift all of us up along the way.”
Asked how can we as a society best honor and keep vital the legacy of people like Rafer Johnson who truly changed history, Thomas responded, “The ultimate lesson is that you’ve got to be true to your convictions and who you are and what you believe matters. I think that’s the lesson of Rafer Johnson and all the other athletes who have made transformative change in society.”